Growing up in the Alps, natural beauty is abundant and never far away. Weekends are spent hiking up mountains flush with foliage and critters, or swimming in lakes and rivers to discover new vegetation that could never be found on land. Being so close to so many untouched stretches of land, and the serenity that comes with the surroundings, it’s hard not to be reminded of how peaceful the wild can really make us feel. And there’s more than one reason why both natural views and sounds are used in meditation, massages, and yoga: we come from nature, so we crave to be back in it.
Nature’s magnetism to all – or at least most – of us is no mystery. Multitudes of studies have been conducted to find out what draws us so uncontrollably to nature. Contact with nature, even just on a visual level, has been proven to reduce stress, improve attention and task performance, as well as having a positive effect on mental restoration. For example, a 2009 study showed how in the presence of greenery, patients recovering from surgery reported a general higher satisfaction, lower blood pressure, as well as lower ratings of anxiety, fatigue, and even pain in comparison to their non-plant counterparts. The feeling of restoration and rejuvenation when we inhale freshly cut grass, or gaze out onto a full, lively garden is no illusion: plants really do help us to heal and feel good.
Similarly, a study involving young students heavily highlighted an improvement to both focus and attention resulting to exposure to nature. Students placed in rooms with plants and flowers during math and spelling tests received a 10% to 14% increase in their grades than when faced with a lifeless room.
Also, Urban workplaces reported a parallel improvement to productivity and overall satisfaction from employees when given a more scenic and green landscape. These connections between wellbeing and biophilic design are being recognized by many large urban centers globally.
Places like Singapore, our lovely Barcelona, Milan and Panama City are actively integrating plant life directly into their buildings and businesses, making a city-wide biophilic connection both outdoors and indoors. The centers are seeing an impact in which the human mind feels more at peace, more at home instinctually, and environmentally a positive benefit to our planet.
A deeper look at Biophilia
One of the key characteristics of biophilia is leveraging nature in all aspects. Biophilia's beginning can be attributed to a biologist by the name of Edward O. Wilson, who spent years studying in the Amazon, researching animals of the smallest kind: ants. Focusing on the small did not hinder his focus to the large, however. Being a man from Alabama in the 1970s, such undisturbed wilderness offered Wilson a look into how our environments can affect us firsthand.
At a time when Wilson was publishing books more for large-scale scientific advances, he released a book that was more personal for him to write, titled “Biophilia”. He is credited with introducing the term biophilia, defining it as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Wilson dedicated an entire chapter of his book to the importance of biodiversity in places like the rainforest. His logic focused on not being limited to just plant-life, but to extend this “urge of affiliation” to all life. This belief was rooted in his personal experience and the ecosystems he studied, in which the existence of hundreds of organisms can rely entirely on the existence of one. Even on a minor scale, biophilia can be expressed through any mutualistic symbiotic relationship, just like the bee and the flower.
Our desire for other life is something that is built into us, as babies, we have to learn to “distinguish life from the inanimate” as life is where we’d find love, care, and food. The craving for nature is a biological response, a survival tactic, one that – fortunately – hasn’t been phased out by evolution yet, while it has been phased out by the urban development of society.
In our battle with urban development, and in turn climate change, we have learned that there’s no better pollution control than the one that Earth itself developed over billions of years. The most impressive feat for control is flora, nature’s most sophisticated tool for air purification. With the increase of urbanization, society has increased levels of different pollutants in the air. This problem is not only a global issue but a personal and individual issue since our wellbeing and health are directly affected.
Biophilia in its base form provides a solution by utilizing nature’s tools and our craving for nature to help improve our urban situation through urban design. In addition, since our homes are not immune to the outdoor pollution that can seep through doors and windows. The air pollution in our own homes is worse than one might expect, especially when indoor air pollutants aren’t a widely covered topic.
Biophilia for better Air Quality
Indoor pollutants are aren’t only coming from industrial processes or car smog, but more importantly come from everyday household materials commonly found in most homes.
Indoor air pollution comes from a variety of sources including pets, bugs, and molds from a biological perspective, and a variety of materials that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Simple household products such as paints, varnishes, cleaners, and building materials can all emit harmful chemicals and air pollutants. These volatile organic compounds, like benzene and formaldehyde, can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma and pneumonia. Their impact is not only limited to the respiratory system but can also damage the reproductive and endocrine systems, some cases even causing cancer.
Ina 2009 study, researchers studied VOCs such as benzene, toluene, and octane – all highly toxic and common – against twenty-eight different species of popular house plants. The study found that some plants performed better than others at removing different volatile organic compounds. For instance, the commonly referred to as the purple waffle plant, was found to decrease all volatile organic compounds tested dramatically. It is worth noting that even plants that were classified as “poor VOC removers” had significant impact on at least one of the compounds tested. In fact, plant that was deemed the least effective, the sweet-scented geranium, still showed a noticeable difference in air quality in reference to toluene, TCE, and α-pinene, all volatile organic compounds that have been found to be hazardous.
A conclusive note
As can be seen, leveraging the biophilic design and introducing nature indoors creates a net positive effect and benefit.
It’s not a secret that we are drawn to the green that surrounds us, or why we are so magnetized, but we can always ask how we can use this information. The possibilities of biophilic design are ever-expanding, as is the science behind it. The more we learn about our leafy friends, the more they can help us, and vice versa.